Grand gateway helps connect land to sea

By Adam Gifford

Denis O'Connor stands in front of his sculpture at Connells Bay which took eight years to make. Photo / Gil Hanly
Denis O'Connor stands in front of his sculpture at Connells Bay which took eight years to make. Photo / Gil Hanly

At Connells Bay at the far end of Waiheke Island, John and Jo Gow are transforming bare paddocks into what they hope will be a feast for the senses. Their materials are native plants and trees and the output of New Zealand's leading sculptors and artists.

The latest fruit of their efforts is a large gateway by fellow Waiheke resident Denis O'Connor. The piece has been eight years in gestation, as the artist considered the placement, the materials and the story it could tell.

"When we commission artists, we let them select their own site, the material and the budget, within reason," says John Gow. "Denis said he would like to do a gateway work. For us it is more than a gateway. It connects with our lives by the sea and boats and our love of the landscape and how art and landscape can enhance each other."

For Keelstone, O'Connor layered slabs of blue Azul marble from Brazil with white marble from Carrera in Italy to form an arch at the entrance to the track leading up through a nikau-clad valley.

The veins in the blue recall underwater marine perspectives, with the facets cut so the markings continue around and through the gate.

At the top of the opening, the marble curves inward in elegant serifs. In the black slab at the foot of the piece his Ballad of Connells Bay is inscribed in san serif capitals:

"The serif is to an alphabet

what language is to a landscape

A keel is to a boat

what a valley is to a hillside

The open sea is to the shore

what surrender is to a gateway."

O'Connor says when planning the piece, he focused on schooners and scows built at the eastern end of Waiheke during the 19th century, when the island's native timbers were being logged. It was also a place where the larger migration vessels stopped to pick up kauri spars for masts.

"The sight of a large cradled boat hauled up on to a front yard or driveway is commonplace around the country, and it's a rare occasion to admire the elegance of a keel shape, Formally, I began there," O'Connor says.

The blue and white stripes hark back to the endless horizon that would have been a constant for weeks on end as ships made their way down here. He also claims a nod to Colin McCahon's Muriwai Beachwalk series, which drew their power from the series of horizontal bands depicting sand, surf, sea, horizon and sky.

O'Connor says one reason the work took a long time to come together was his discomfort at the idea of a raw sculpture plonked on to a landscape. "If I'm drawn into a commissioned sculpture project, I prefer a work to have some ritual function; to walk over it, through it, or under it."

He also likes to honour some aspect of the culture, the provenance of the site or unknown and unacknowledged persons. He cites Taranaki artist Don Driver, who died in December, whose contribution to New Zealand sculpture O'Connor believes has yet to be properly honoured.

O'Connor positioned his gateway as the formal threshold into the collection, but also a challenge to the other work, both in its critique of the idea of sculpture lounging on the landscape and in the way he has come up with something outside his usual range.

Many of the other artists seem to have produced signature items, albeit larger than normal. Some, however, have augmented the landscape in revealing ways, such as Cathryn Monroe adding elements of a Mayan pyramid to a dam face, Peter Nicholls threading a red wooden streamer through a manuka grove or Graham Bennett framing a hillside with his large steel and stainless steel construction.

Gregor Kregar used the widening of a valley to create a complex illusion using multiple cast ceramic sculptures of himself, like a Chinese buried army of boilersuit-clad artists.

Gow says one of the most polarising pieces is Neil Dawson's Other People's Houses, where the artist has made no concessions to "nature" in inserting his towering red and white painted steel tower in the middle of a view of the gulf islands.


What: Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Where and when: Connells Bay, Cowes Bay Rd, Waiheke, bookings essential


* Connells Bay Sculpture Park is open by appointment from October to April. There is also a guest cottage available.

- NZ Herald

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